Airline hijackings won't keep these sisters grounded
The flight attendants say they overcame their fears, realizing that life goes on.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
CANFIELD -- Phyllis and Joe Stephens stand before a portrait of their four daughters. The women share more than a family resemblance: Posed next to an airplane, each also wears the attire of a flight attendant.
The women, who grew up in Canfield, are all members of an airline industry that has changed overnight. But none, say their parents, is fearful.
"We worry about them more than they do," said Joe. "They go about it routinely."
Overcoming fears: Pegi Stephens, an American Airlines flight attendant, said she chose to overcome her fears quickly. Less than a week after the attacks, she was scheduled to fly to Wichita, Kan., but plans changed and she was asked to board a 757 headed for New York.
"Me and another flight attendant, we had our emotional moments," said Pegi Stephens, contacted by phone at her Dallas home. "But we thought, 'No. You have to get back on the horse.' But not to be affected by it would be insensitive."
At the time of the attacks, she said, she was on her way to work. She arrived at an airport filled with chaos and "was getting very anxious and not wanting to fly" before she learned no planes would depart.
She now continues to fly 80 to 90 hours each month, well over an average 72 hours. She said she feels safe.
Bobbie Jo Fleming, who also works for American Airlines, said most flight attendants are feeling comfortable with their jobs. "The ones that aren't are the ones who knew people [affected by the Sept. 11 attacks], because that really hits home," she said during a telephone interview from her Rockwall, Texas, home.
Takeoff: The first time she stepped on a plane after the Sept. 11 attacks, Fleming said, it was a "little eerie."
As she sat on her seat for takeoff, she thought for a moment about what the flight attendants went through on the Sept. 11 hijacked airplanes.
"But once I ... started doing my job it was just like the old times," she said.
Anyone who has concerns has been offered a six-month leave, Fleming said. Fleming has taken an unpaid leave, but it's not because she's frightened.
She said she doesn't fly as much as some of the other attendants and doesn't need the work. She is married with three teen-agers to rear, Fleming said, and her job is not crucial to the family's income. With her taking leave, she said, a single mother or another women who needs income will keep her job.
Living life: Jill Moore, also of Rockwall, said she feels more secure than she did before the attacks. She said she is more cautious and spends more time looking around but is otherwise unchanged.
"I don't live my life in fear anytime, in anything I do," said Moore, who works for Southwest Airlines. "I'm not concerned about it at all. ... I know other flight attendants that are really, really concerned about this. But I'm like, 'Live your life to the fullest and don't live in fear.'"
Moore said her sense of security may rest in the fact that she flies only between Texas cities, and the planes she flies in are not equipped with the fuel to make long trips.
On her first flight after Sept. 11, Moore said, she tried to picture what had happened to the flight attendants on the hijacked planes. Her only other fears are for her 7-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son who would be hurt if anything happened to her.
Pam Stephens, who has flown for 30 years with TWA, said the attacks have not shaken her faith in the safety of air travel.
"It's that fate -- the chances are so slim," said Stephens, of Palatine, Ill. "I think, basically, that the airlines are pretty safe, and I think you have to go on with your life."
She was in a San Antonio hotel preparing for a flight when she heard of the attacks. She went to the airport and boarded a plane before being told there would be no flights.
She stayed in San Antonio for three days before leaving. On that first flight, she said, she felt safe because security was "very, very intense."
Security measures: The women said the main change in their jobs revolves around new security measures being enforced at airports. They told of reinforced cockpits, more complete identification checks for both passengers and crew, and baggage searches that leave nothing private. The flight attendants themselves also have become more cautious and aware of their surroundings.
While Moore and Fleming are confident that their experience will give them job security, the other sisters aren't so sure.
Although she has been a flight attendant the longest, Pam Stephens has concerns about the airline industry as a whole and wonders what might become of her seniority as American Airlines acquires TWA. Pegi Stephens said her 11 years experience may sound significant, but it keeps her relatively low seniority-wise.
Pam Stephens said she was shocked to hear what the hijackers were capable of doing.
"Initially, it didn't really hit me," she said. "It takes a while for it to set in."
Fleming said she, too, felt shock.
"I'm on these planes all the time," she said. "I was like, 'Somebody has used an airplane for a missile.' ... I just couldn't believe it."
Normally, flight attendants have been taught, hijackers want to land. Fleming never expected hijackers could be on a suicide mission.
Family affair: Joe and Phyllis Stephens said their daughters had all studied to become teachers. Pam Stephens was the first to become a flight attendant. Her experiences lured the other women to take up the profession.
Phyllis said she was worried the day of the attacks because Fleming had recently been in New York. But all four of the women called their parents quickly to let them know they were safe.
Now, the parents say, they have little fear for their daughters and hope they continue to have positive experiences as flight attendants.
"I have full confidence in their judgment," Joe said, "and their attitudes."